Ben Howland is gone. Unfortunately for UCLA fans, Ben is not gone today but only after the end of the season. However, in my mind the bigger question is who is staying at the end of the year. While many are focusing on Tony Parker, the bigger question may be the other three. For UCLA has an incredible three finalists for freshman of the year.
That's right UCLA has 3 of the 12 players on the watch list for freshman of the year. Now I want Ben Howland gone as much as the next person. But I would be remiss if I did not point out that Arizona's recruiting class, which was almost as good, has zero. And two of those players start. Of course, Arizona is doing better this season than UCLA overall, but I still maintain that Sean Miller is a great recruiter and a mediocre coach. Howland has done a better job with his freshman than the over rated Miller.
But let's breakdown the freshman and how they have done this season.
1. Shabazz Muhammad. Not since Kevin Love has UCLA had a freshman come in with bigger hype. However, unlike Kevin Love, Shabazz has been surrounded by controversy since before he stepped on the court. Everything the kid does off the court seems to generate controversy and some say is evidence of corruption at UCLA. The facts are that there is zero evidence that UCLA did anything wrong in their recruitment of Muhammad but those out to get UCLA will always say it does not "smell right." (Shabazz's situation is so ridiculous, a friend of mine from Kentucky expressed to me he is glad they did not get him because they don't need that scrutiny.) Even the backpack Shabazz wears is a lead story on ESPN's basketball page.
Thus the kid has had a surreal time at UCLA. He has to deal with scrutiny off the basketball court like no other player in recent UCLA history. This makes Shabazz's on the court accomplishments more impressive. Shabazz is fourth in the conference in scoring (first among freshman), third in three point percentage (15th in makes) and eighth in offensive rebounds. He has scored over 20 points 9 times. Shabazz has truly been a force on the offensive end.
A cynical criticism of Shabazz is that he is a one and done mercenary. I understand this criticism, but I am okay with taking an occasional kid like Kevin Love and Shabazz, that is one and done. However, there is another criticism that sticks out in my mind. That criticism goes to why Shabazz said he came here: Defense. Shabazz's defense is just awful. When the shot goes up, Shabazz goes to the other end of the court. Sometimes even before the shot goes up. It is simple really, against UCLA get Kyle away from the basket and then it is just Travis or David Wear to rebound and UCLA is done. Shabazz as the 3, does not even try to rebound on defense much of the time.
And let me be clear it is not because he can't. He is one of the conference's top offensive rebounders. In the Stanford game, Shabazz responded to his critics with seven defense rebounds. When Shabazz came to UCLA, I had the impression we were getting a more athletically talent AA. A player whose effort would be second to none. It turns out we got a better on offense than AA. Shabazz's effort on the offense is off the charts, but on defense his effort is more in line with Jerime Anderson his sophomore year or no-D Ragovic.
2. Kyle Anderson. I am not neutral on Kyle. I said I had on a "man crush" on him. Let me just break down Kyle statistically real quick. Kyle ranks sixth in the conference in rebounding, steals and assists (when was the last time you heard that combination?). But delving more into the statistics is even more fascinating. Kyle also ranks third in the conference on assist to turnover ratio and defensive rebounding. The defensive rebounding is what this team needs and the assist to turnover is spectacular considering how many great passes he makes. It proves Kyle is doing his job well. I would love to see Kyle play point guard next year.
But if you want to hang the last two losses on a player statistically, Kyle would be the choice. He shot a combined 5-20 against ASU and USC. But even more importantly than the stats both USC and ASU dragged Kyle away from the inside with players that were good outside shooters in Wise and Gilling. UCLA's inside was so soft they were destroyed. Although Kyle's rebounding numbers were not bad, I think that is the key. Kyle is the only player on this team with an interest in defensive rebounding. I am not saying Kyle is the entire answer but this UCLA teams needs Kyle down low.
3. Jordan Adams. Jordan Adams has been the most pleasant surprise this year and is the one player that always looks to be having fun. Adams is not a guy who much was expected of this year yet :
Adams leads UCLA in three-point field goals (30), free throws (83), free throw percentage (81.4, 83-for-102) and steals (42)
In the conference, Adams ranks seventh in scoring, tenth in free throw percentage, and fourth in steals. Adams has had big games, going 16-16 from the free throw line against UCI. Adams has also improved on defense from horrid to a sometimes effective gambler. However, his defense still needs work.
And that is the problem with all three. They all have gaudy numbers. They are all very good players but in all cases their defense needs work. As much as it is fun to have three players on the watch list for freshman of the year, UCLA would be better off to trade one of them for a Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. A player who never had gaudy statistics but was so good on defense he made everyone else better.
For these three star's defense and this team's defense are what is holding it back. The ultimate irony is Ben Howland is going to be forced out of Westwood because his team is not good enough on defense.
In your response below, please pick your favorite freshman of the year for UCLA so far.
Go Bruins! And stay for the new coach Kyle and Jordan!!